WEST SIDE STORY (2021) movie musical review

Excels in technical achievement, staging, and casting; in fact it will transport you to the glory days of the movie musical. Did the Academy Award-winning West Side Story (1961) need a 2021 update? That is the question at the forefront of many minds going into this update to the adaptation. And in terms of the visible mise-en-scene, Spielberg delivers an outstanding update to the original big screen adaptation. From the cinematography to the editing to the choreography, it certainly displays the soul of the original adaptation–all the way down to the film grain that gives it a classical aesthetic. But the full transformative potential of the timeless story suffocates under the theoretical identity politics of Spielberg’s Woke Side Story. While the plot and story remain largely unchanged, there is an attempt to integrate theoretical contemporary social politics, derived from applied postmodernism, into the motivations of the characters. Gone is the theme of mutually assured self-destruction through (in the case of West Side Story) gang violence, in exchange for themes rooted in critical cynical theories that, counterintuitively, ultimately harm everyone on screen and in real life.

Love at first sight strikes when young Tony (Elgort) spots Maria (Zegler) at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks — two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.

While the original film has long-since been criticized negatively (and fairly so) for many of the casting choices and the use of brown face, Spielberg’s film rights the insensitivities of the past in his casting choices that are far more true to the original characters. Perhaps Ansel Elgort’s Tony isn’t particularly memorable, but audiences will be completely elated by Rachel Zegler’s Maria! Her voice and screen presence will capture your imagination! Furthermore, audiences will love seeing the great Rita Moreno (Anita from the 1961 version) on screen as the shoppe keeper and Tony’s mentor. And to top it all off, Moreno is given the honor of singing the titular song Somewhere.

Since the story and plot are largely unchanged, I won’t spend any time analyzing the bones of this iteration of Romeo and Juliet. Personally, I find West Side Story to be the best expression of Shakespeare’s greatest romantic tragedy. When the original stage (quickly turned film) production was released, it was a critique on gang violence and race relations at the time, and to a lesser extent, there was a critique on gentrification as well. And on the surface, that is still in the 2021 adaptation. But the power dynamic between the Jets and Sharks changed from the original. Whereas originally both groups were equal contributors to the gang violence, each despising the other; in this version, it is the Jets that receive the dominant share of the antagonism and prejudice, with the Sharks in a mostly defensive position.

In the mid-20th century, the problems with acceptance of others that deviated from the homogenous world in which one was reared were more organic and needed to be dealt with before mutually assured destruction befell everyone; however, the vast majority of the presently visible evidence of prejudice between groups is manufactured by activist scholars who seek to make everything about “race, gender, and identity–and why this harms everyone” (from Cynical Theories). This update of West Side Story was a golden opportunity to show the world that we aren’t that different from one another, and should work cooperatively in order to avoid violence and death due to perceived existential threats. Instead, this film has the opposite effect of continuing to point blame, theorize, and perpetuate “social diseases” (to quote the film).

This nuanced shift hinders the critique on racial/ethnic prejudice because it perpetuates the contrived cynical theory that white members of society are mostly to blame for the problems in the streets. Instead of the timeless story tackling the root of the problem, which is ultimately a heart issue in everyone, it places most of the blame on the Jets and everything they are shown to represent.

As you may have heard, the Spanish is not subtitled in this adaptation. And many have praised Spielberg for this decision; however, if you do not speak Spanish, you will be unable to fully understand some of the dialogue. Yes, there are context clues that will aid in deciphering what the characters are saying, but there are plenty of times that non-Spanish-speaking audiences will be unable to know what’s being said and how/why it’s important. In the press conference for this film, Spielberg said, “it was out of respect that we didn’t subtitle any of the Spanish. That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help.” He goes on to cite that 19% of the US population reports being hispanic. Furthermore, screenwriter Tony Kushner added at the conference, “We’re a bilingual country,” and in reply Spielberg stated, “We sure are.” It doesn’t take a scholar to see through the virtue signaling to this decision being problematic for the film. (1) the US is not mostly bilingual (2) not everyone takes Spanish in high school or college (3) why would you want more than half the audience to not be able to understand dialogue in the film? (4) are we just going to stereotype and assume that the entirety of the hispanic population is fluent in Spanish??? and (5) it carries with it the notion that if you do not speak Spanish, you are the problem. Subtitling the Spanish would not have detracted by the film; on the contrary, it would have allowed for a greater use of the language by the Puerto Ricans in the film.

I want to end on some positive notes, because there is much to like about the aesthetic of the film. From the first scene to the last, the framing, lighting, and character blocking are outstanding! There is a beautiful classical dimension to this film. I absolutely loved the how every visible or audible element of the mise-en-scene looked! There is a magic the look and feel fo classical musicals that is seldom witnessed today. The last film to find this balance between naturalistic and staged blocking and choreography was La La Land. There are moments in this film that you will feel that you are watching the original, and it’s not simply because there are shot-for-shot sequences, but the lighting, angels, and film grain give 2021’s West Side Story dimension.

Rachel Zegler is the perfect Maria! I love everything about her performance. It’s strong, yet vulnerable, and she is stunning in the trademark white dress with red belt. The naturalism she brings to this character is outstanding. There isn’t one minute that goes by that you doubt she was born to play Maria. And her voice! Her voice is crystal clear and mesmerizing. It was also a real treat to get to see Rita Moreno return to West Wise Story 60 years later. While she may be in a different role (Valentina), she still commands the screen. Spielberg and Kushner deciding to give the titular song Somewhere to Valentina was the best decision in the whole film. It packed a power that it lacks in the placement in the stage and original film versions. While Elgort showed us that he can sing (when given the right song, which is not the case with his first number), but he is ultimately upstaged by Mike Faist who plays Riff.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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Dear Evan Hansen Movie Musical Review

Melodrama: the Musical! Dear Evan Hansen, based on the Tony award winning musical by the same name, is a movie for people who have struggled with social anxiety or depression, like musicals in general, or were unpopular in high school. So, pretty much everyone who was a member of the Drama Club. One of the most highly anticipated movies of 2021, this landmark Broadway musical loses much of its pizzaz once adapted for the screen. Every decade, there comes a time when Broadway musical adaptations are all the rage, but some stories simply work better on stage than screen. Not having seen the stage production, I cannot comment on elements that were lost, but it strikes me as a story that simply works better when performed live than captured on celluloid. Dear Evan Hansen is an emotionally manipulative derivative movie musical in the vein of 13 Reasons Why. But I have to say, even the dialogue in the aforementioned titular young adult TV series was more thoughtful. For all the film’s desperate desire to depict a socially-relevant, tough subject matter, it plays off as superficial virtue signaling whose veneer is merely two-dimensional.

Evan Hansen is an anxious, isolated high-school student who’s aching for understanding and belonging amid the chaos and cruelty of the social media age. He soon embarks on a journey of self-discovery when a letter he wrote for a writing exercise falls into the hands of a grieving couple whose son took his own life.

Much of the talent from the Broadway musical is carried over into the film. Most notably, actor Ben Platt, who plays the title character Evan Hansen. Let’s get the obvious out of the way. There’s been some skepticism and hate surrounding the movie ever since the trailer dropped, mainly because Ben Platt (27) is playing a high school student. Is it distracting? Very. But once you get past it, he does deliver a good performance. Obviously, he knows this character well, much better than the movie knows itself. Moreover, Julianne Moore and Amy Adams also deliver great performances as the mothers of Evan and Connor (the deceased boy), respectively. In addition to our lead and supporting actors, the film pulled from film industry talent as well in front of and behind the camera.

Also on board is Stephen Chbosky, director of acclaimed coming of age films The Perks of being a Wallflower and Wonder but he doesn’t bring that same level of thoughtfulness to this movie. Which was perhaps an insurmountable task not only because of the hype from the musical, but also because it’s such a heavy subject to touch upon. There are some interesting visual choices and innovative techniques like the way it portrays the internet but the emotions don’t always hit right. This film rides a fine line between drama and comedy and sometimes overshoots by having some scenes be too sappy and over dramatic and other scenes that make light of sensitive subjects like suicide, which might be off putting to some people.Perhaps he was strong-armed by the Broadway producers to execute scenes a particular way, but we can only speculate as to why he doesn’t seem to care as much about these characters as he did with his other young adult/coming of age films.

The well-known songs from the musical were certainly the highlight for audiences. Fortunately, the director chose to provide sufficient space between songs in order to allow for an emotional reset. Whereas the show-stopping numbers are usually performed with gusto, these songs were much more subtle. And like musical numbers should, each piece sufficiently moved the melodramatic plot forward. The amount of musical numbers isn’t a whole lot and none are these big showy sequences with choreography, but I like that. I’m not sure if the stage performance is like that, but the lowkey nature of those numbers fits well.

The film also threads a fine line between drama and comedy which makes it engaging but might also be off putting for some because it at times makes light of sensitive subjects like suicide.
The characters are not completely surface level but seem to represent the high school stereotypes of the 2010s (and 2020s so far); basically what the typical jocks, nerds, etc. were to generations past. Furthermore, this movie tries to paint a picture of the 2010s high school landscape, similar to what films like Mean Girls did for generations past, but ultimately falls short. The characters are not entirely two dimensional and different from those familiar archetypes of previous decades and certainly more “diverse.” For example, the popular, successful girl is shown to have some depth and the protagonist nerdy not really-friend makes an off hand remark which tells us he is gay they still mostly come off as a new set of stereotypes to populate the Gen Z high school.

All in all this movie still tries to tell a somewhat original story with memorable songs and performances. And it delivers a positive message about connection, which is something that everybody, not just young people, needs. This is especially true in these times. So, if this films sounds like something you’d enjoy then go see it; if it doesn’t, then don’t.

This review was written by Leon Zitz, German contributor to the R.L. Terry ReelView.

“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” movie musical review

You won’t be able to resist the singing and laughter! A major summer box office win for Universal Pictures! Ten years ago, I loved Mamma Mia! and now I equally enjoyed the sequel that seemingly came out of nowhere. I danced, I jived, I had the time of my life, and you will too! The entire original cast is back, and not only them, but select supporting and atmospheric characters as well. Mostly filled with new additions to the Mamma Mia! musical soundtrack, you still get the crowd favorites, those showstopping numbers Dancing QueenSuper Trouper, and of course Mamma Mia. Selections from other songs from the original motion picture (and ABBA Gold album) also make appearances. In our world that seems to be filled with so much negativity, hate, and sadness, a movie like this is needed to lift the human spirit, let go of all your cares, and give yourself over to the timeless music of ABBA and the hilarious antics of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. Just like I will be the first to tell you that if you’re searching for the most fun show on Broadway, to select Mamma Mia!, the same rings true for the sequel to the original adaptation. It is so much fun! It might be kitschy fun, but immensely entertaining and very well produced. While some movies and movie musicals comment on society or deal with hard topics, this is a refreshing film that reminds us that it is okay to attend the cinema for no holds barred fun in order to uplift the human spirit.

It’s been ten years since Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) threw her wedding to find her dad, and she is working diligently to remodel and reopen her mother’s hotel. Sadly, Donna (Meryl Streep) has passed away and left the responsibility of running the hotel to her daughter. In order to do her mom proud, Sophie is putting the finishing touches on the grand opening party when she receives some troubling news and a storm wreaks havoc on the hotel. Channeling inspiration from her mother, Sophie reflects on all the stories her mother told her about how she met her dads and came to the island. We get to spend a significant amount of time with young Donna (Lily James) as she makes her way in this world. From graduation to making a home out of the farmhouse and falling for Harry, Bill, and Sam along the way. Sophie learn how her life parallels her mom’s in so many ways. Reuniting with Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski), she moves forward with determination to see her mother’s dream all the way through. Just when she’s had enough surprises in her life, Sophie finally comes face to face with her estranged grandmother Ruby (Cher).

There is beauty in simplicity. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again delivers an amazingly fun movie musical built upon a simple plot with iconic songs. It’s a juke box musical. While it may lack the depth, introspect, or critical value of other movie musicals, it possess a power to make an emotional connection that doesn’t hit you hard or seek to change your worldview on an issue, but instead uses the power of song and dance to make you smile. Genuinely smile. The kind of infectious smile and laughter that fills the auditorium at the movie theatre. Sometimes filmmakers are so concerned with upholding the art of cinema, packing in powerful messages, or visualizing deep themes that the desire to entertain for fun gets forgotten. Not only is this the most fun at the movies you will have this summer, but it’s a movie that is solidly produced. It has a command cast featuring performances by Meryl Street and Cher and a lovable cast of familiar and new characters. Whereas the original movie relies mostly on top tier ABBA songs that are generally known to fans and public, this movie employs mostly second and third tier ABBA songs. Fortunately, these lesser known songs will soon find their way into karaoke libraries and mix tape play lists on Spotify and AmazonMusic.

Do yourself a favor and head to the movies this weekend to smile, laugh, and sing along with Mamma Mia: Here We go Again! I enjoyed it so much, that I could definitely watch it again myself. But tomorrow night I need to watch Universal Pictures’ other release this week Unfriended: Dark Web (coincidentally, another sequel that came out of nowhere).

Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) movie review

Prepare yourself for “a tale as old as time” that is ultimately better told through its animated counterpart. Director Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the (1992) Academy Awards, is an extravagant display of visual effects and digital imagery necessary to animate a live-action motion picture. Essentially, he took an animated movie, made it live-action, just to make it animated again. Sure, this new version of the “song as old as rhyme” can certainly stand on its own and is demonstrably well-directed, but 2017’s Beauty and the Beast largely comes across as unnecessary. In terms of the storytelling (or diegesis), the film’s effort to nearly shot-for-shot translate the most memorable parts of the film from animation to live-action pays off nicely! It’s when the film tries to be different that it falls short in its delivery. There are sufficient moments that beautifully recreate that which caused you to fall in love with this movie more than two decades ago; although, with this version, you may find yourself exhausted and over-stimulated by the constant waves of computer-animated figures in a live-action world. Oh yeah, you’ll likely miss hearing the legendary Angela Lansbury as the iconic Mrs. Potts. The film does its very best to justify its existence, but begs the question whether or not this was the movie for which you were waiting.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a young lady with a longing for adventure and a great big imagination, but she lives in a rather provincial French town. But, Belle is about to get more adventure than even she, in her wildest imagination could have dreamt. For through a series of strange circumstances, she finds herself trapped inside a dark foreboding castle, surrounded by a very odd collection of characters. It’s in this castle that she finds her father who she feared injured or dead imprisoned by a Beast (Dan Stevens). Against her father’s wishes, she reluctantly exchanges herself for her father’s release. After the Beast sets him free, Belle is to remain a permanent resident of the castle. Fearing the worst, Belle’s father seeks the help of the misogynistic village heartthrob Gaston (Luke Evans) and his band of goofs and thugs to rescue her. During this time, however, Belle begins to feel “something there that wasn’t there before” as she learns more about the Beast of the castle.

Can this film stand on its own? Sure. There is no question in that. Moreover, is it enjoyable and magical? That, it is. But when most of the campaign, leading up to the highly anticipated release, was primarily built upon how similar the live-action film would be to its animated counterpart, therein a problem arises. Because most people going into the movie will have seen the animated version, Broadway show, or even the show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which, in full disclosure, is a show that I worked when I was a Cast Member at Walt Disney World), you are predisposed to looking for and eagerly awaiting the nostalgic references and memories. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was looking forward to reliving the experience of when I first saw the animated movie. For the most part, if you are like me, then you will be pleased with the live-action translation–truly. However, it’s when the live-action version departs from or adds in material not found or referenced in the animated classic that you may be disappointed or simply ask “why?” You may find yourself wondering why was a live-action remake even necessary?

One of the most memorable elements of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is the music! Still to this day, millions of people love hearing the classic music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Both the Beauty and the Beast and Be Our Guest can be heard as part of other shows at Walt Disney World and of course are included in the stage show at Hollywood Studios. Fortunately, the most iconic songs from the animated version are largely untouched; however, with a couple of the songs, there are breaks for diegetic dancing, fighting, or other material that essentially interrupts the organic flow of the music from the buildup to the climax and denouement. Again, the question “why” will likely pop into your head. We are introduced to a few new songs, and in and of themselves, are beautiful! Every note and lyric has that Disney magic that many of us have come to expect and appreciate. Unfortunately, the songs just don’t fit in with the original numbers in terms of pacing, lyrics, and score. Furthermore, here’s something quite interesting and odd: the song [To Be] Human Again was written for but deleted when it originally hit theatres in 1991. It was, however, added back in for the Broadway show and in the 2010 (and Diamond Edition) re-release of the movie. Although it was seen as important enough to include in the Broadway show and add back into the animated version, it is conspicuously missing from the live-action remake.

With the exception of Emma Thompson replacing the legendary Angela Lansbury, the cast was well-selected and demonstrated excellent chemistry between one another. Although Emma Watson is not a singer by trade, she was able to capture a Belle-like essence in her delivery of the various songs throughout the film. There was something uniquely organic in her voice that is seldom captured by other Disney “princesses” (note: Belle is not a princess). I greatly appreciate the dynamic range of characters that Watson has demonstrated that she can play over the years. Dan Stevens wows audiences with his vocal prowess especially in his solo number as we transition from the second to third acts. I appreciate how he stuck a fantastic balance between his human and beast sides respectively. Luke Evans was a perfect choice for Gaston, and his vocal talent matches his muscles–big, bold, and flawless. The rest of the cast, which includes some A-list talent itself, was ideally suited for the enchanted objects in the castle and the village.

Okay, now for the white elephant in the room: Josh Gad’s Lefou. Unless you have been completely disconnected from social media and the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard or read about the first ever Disney “gay moment” in this film. Suffice it to say, the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion. In fact, more attention is likely being paid to Lefou now than had the story never grown to the size of Gaston’s ego. For the most part, the subtext and subtitles of Lefou’s are largely just that–subtle–unless you are looking for them. But, in doing that, you may miss some of the more important and impressive parts of the movie. Moreover, there is nothing in Lefou’s actions that come across as offensive or obnoxious. Before audiences begin accusing Disney of pushing their ideals on those eager to attend this film, it is likely that the entertainment and media giant is simply delivering what audiences already expect or want. As a film and media professor, I can tell you that by in large, media simply delivers what audiences and investors are telling them to produce–not the other way around. Looking back at the animated film, it is pretty obvious that Lefou has a thing for Gaston anyway. Although most of the hints at his sexual orientation are more-or-less winks or nods at the audience (winks or nods that you have to be looking for), there is a moment that is a trifle more obvious at the end of the film. Diegetically, there is nothing bizarre about Lefou’s behavior and it suits his character well.

Prepare to be whisked away to an enchanted castle in a remote part of France. So remote is this province in France, that most everyone speaks with a British accent. Bill Condon’s film will take you back to when you first saw this magical tale of falling in love with someone based upon what’s on the inside and not allowing a beastly outward appearance to detract from the gentle soul. Relive the music that you may still listen to in the car or eagerly look forward to when visiting the Disney Parks and Resorts. Ultimately, this film may not capture the magic of the original for you, but there is a lot to enjoy! Looking for a great date movie this weekend, then this is definitely it! Hopefully a side effect of this film may remind producers and audiences that some stories are better suited for an animated motion picture.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead